Cenotaph replica huge success for St. Pat’s students, teachers

Students and staff from the manufacturing, design and construction technology and visual arts classes stand in front of the replica cenotaph at St. Patrick’s High School. It’s hoped a business or organizations will step forward to help with its long-term storage. Robert Walicki Photo

Phil Egan

It looked so much like the real thing it caused smart people to say silly things as they filed into the Sarnia Arena on Nov. 11.

“How did they get it in here? And so fast?” people were heard to ask about the Cenotaph on the arena floor — even from some who had just walked past the original in Veterans Park.

The city’s Cenotaph had been so stunningly reproduced it was hard to imagine it was made of particle board and foam.

But the calibre of the craftsmanship becomes a little more understandable when you learn one of its drivers was St. Patrick’s High School teacher Matt Abbott. Abbott’s family has designed and built some of Canada’s most famous racing yachts, and he worked at the family business until the age 30.

Abbott and Visual Arts instructor Kelly Gordon oversaw the team of about 60 students that worked on the remarkable likeness.

The Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 62, made the decision earlier this year to move the Remembrance Day ceremonies from Veterans Park to the Sarnia Arena – and the gamble paid off. The 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War drew an overflow crowd of 3,000 people, who said they appreciated the warmth and improved sight lines.

The Legion wanted something front and centre, a place for the laying of memorial wreaths, and military historian Tom Slater, a former St. Pat’s teacher himself, suggested Abbott’s manufacturing design class.

The Legion request was fresh in Abbott’s mind the next time he drove past Veterans Park. Gazing over at the Cenotaph, he thought, “We can build that.”

Detailed measurements and planning followed, and 22 sheets of particle board and hundreds of hours of labour went into the replica. Gordon and her visual arts students constructed the soldier atop the monument by moulding chicken wire around a mannequin and adding a plaster cast of student Garrett Patterson’s face.

A similar cast was produced from a genuine First World War helmet. A CNC router was used to painstakingly engrave the names of Sarnia’s fallen soldiers onto the base, which was spray-painted to create a granite-like effect.

The replica was assembled for the first time at the arena in the early morning hours of Remembrance Day.

Legion president Jim Burgess said he had no idea the finished product would be so spectacular. He’s now hoping it can be kept for possible future use, although storage is an issue.

Meanwhile, the young artisans at St. Patrick’s have moved on to other community projects for the Knight of Columbus and Communities in Bloom.